A Veteran Prisoner Watches the Parade of Ruined Lives
April 9 - Into the Maze
They just don't seem to know what they're getting into. Maybe they don't care, but they should. I'm referring to young men who are coming to prison.
I've been locked up for more than thirty years. So I hail from a different generation. Yet here they come. The routine never changes. Every few weeks a fresh shipment of men enter the facility as those who've been here for awhile transfer on. Faithfully, a bus will arrive and out of it will stumble a new crop of swashbuckling, hip-hopping, head-bobbing wannabe tough guys who have thrown away their lives. However they just haven't realized it yet, but in time they will. For the moment, though, they don't have a clue that the choices each one has made have now embarked them on a journey which will result in many wasted years - years that should have been their most productive.
I see their faces. Fresh looking yet painted with a false bravado, and bodies with plenty of tattoos, too. Most are first-timers in the system. But these usually have a criminal record for prior but lesser offenses. It's the same self-destructive pattern. Start small, end big. It's the classic rising in the ranks from juvenile court and a short stay at a youth facility, to the ultimate promotion - a sentence to the state's prison system.
Of course older men arrive as well. Some of them are repeaters who've returned on a new sentence, or they have violated parole. In here, it seems, there is always room for more. The authorities will find the space. No convict will be turned away because the facility is full. Of this we can be sure.
It's a maze they've gotten themselves trapped in, and a big mess as well. After all, prison is a place for flops and lawbreakers. It's the truth. This isn't Yale or Harvard. It is the House of Pain. Yet, conversely, it is also a place for contemplation and reflection. In here a man can, if he is ready, face his demons and confront the truth about himself. But, like the crime he committed to bring him here, it too is a choice.
Yes, facing oneself. It happens. In the process of time many prisoners awaken to their situation. The realization comes that they're locked away from their families, and from society. Regret enters the scene, remorse and guilt for the crime, as well as self-loathing and a deep and growing hatred for what he has done. I know. This was and is me. And when a man is at this stage he is ripe for repentance. Because honest self-examination, while painful, can result in change. A man becomes sick of who he is and how he has lived his life. He comes to the end of himself, really. Then, at this point, deep in his heart, he knows he's through with the criminal lifestyle. This is a good thing. And, if anything, this is the better part of prison. A man admits his wrongs, is sorry for his actions, and he is now ready for a new beginning.
Still there is a bad side to prison, and I hope to write about it tomorrow. For not all of these men want to change for the better. Not all have remorse for their crimes. Some give up and they get worse.
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April 23 - Into the Maze II
The fact is, that in a majority of cases, a man who is doing time is eventually going to one day be released. Yes, some will die in prison. While serving out their respective terms there will be men who die of natural causes like old age or sickness, or by other ways such as violence and suicide. Nevertheless, at some point, be it five, ten, fifteen, twenty or more years a man will get his chance to walk out of a correctional facility to rejoin society.
Therefore, the twofold question I want to pose is:
"Is he going to come out of prison a better or a worse person?" Because, as an old-timer who has spent several decades behind the walls, I know that prison is too much of an overpowering environment for a man to come here, spend years here, and leave the same as when he first arrived. My belief is that he will change in one way or the other. There is no neutral ground.
As I wrote in yesterday's entry, the better part of prison is when an inmate, at some point of his incarceration, enters a period of self-examination and reflection, leading to positive change. Whereas, at the opposite end of the spectrum, other prisoners become increasingly bitter. They've lost everything that was dear to them, which, of course, is one of the prices of engaging in criminal activity. And often these personal losses are permanent. All that's left for him are fading family photos and fading memories. Then, with all this comes the anger. And such anger can be directed outward, inward, or both. It's mostly both. It's always dangerous.
Unfortunately, some prisoners are in a state of continual denial. They accept no responsibility for their actions (assuming they're really guilty; not all inmates are). They refuse to bow their hearts and minds to the truth, and they try to escape their inner pain through such mundane activities as spending as many hours as possible playing sports, watching television, card playing, or hanging out in the recreation yard with their homeboys. In the yard they'll kill the time chatting with their homeboys and bragging about past exploits, be they real or imagined. This is all part of the unconscious game of pain reduction and denial. You could call it trying to deaden one's ever-speaking conscience. It's also the path of least resistance because, when a man admits his wrongs and seeks to change for the better, this requires hard work. It's an uphill climb.
Frankly, as for prison officials, they could not care less which road a man chooses to take, whether it is one of self-betterment or time wasting, just as long as a man keeps his mouth shut and stays out of trouble. For prison officials, they have a body that's been placed into their charge, and nothing more. Their main job is to keep felons confined, and occupied, and reasonably healthy. It's not their job to save souls or to make convicts into saints.
But, for the prisoner, like everything else in life, he has choices to make. Thankfully, some men become repentant and remorseful, and with God's help they want to change for the better. This is good, and there are indeed genuine transformations that occur. To me, this is what prison should be about beyond the basic purpose of punishment.
while, on the negative side, the harshness and overall hardship of incarceration, with all its personal and psychological pains, and even various spiritual factors, all converge together to cause some prisoners to give up and surrender to the vilest of impulses. They've lost all hope, and they seethe with a quiet, and sometimes not so quiet, rage. Sadly, they've become the proverbial "walking time bombs." They can be diffused by the power of God, I believe. But they don't want divine help.
As I said at the start of this entry, men doing time in prison either change for the better, or the worse. It's a fact of life. And, from my vantage point from within this maze called prison, I am able to watch each human drama as it unfolds. I'm a part of it, too.